Do genetically modified foods involve risks for the health of consumers?

On 14 January 2004 the Federal German Cabinet adopted a bill for the enforcement of the European regulations on genetically modified food and feed. The public debate about the bill caused unease amongst consumers. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment is receiving more and more inquiries about the safety of genetically modified food and the possible effects on health after consuming products of this kind. This prompted the Federal Institute to sum up the current state of scientific knowledge for consumers. Professor Andreas Hensel, President of BfR, commented, “The bill does not in any way change the safety of genetically modified food. In future, too, it will only be granted authorisation if it has successfully completed comprehensive safety tests“. Thanks to improving labelling provisions, it will in future be easier for the consumer to make an informed decision for or against genetic engineering.

What is changing?

The European regulations on genetically modified food and feed replace the provisions of the Novel Foods Regulation on genetically modified food and feed which have been in force since May 1997. The goal of the new legal provisions is to make authorisation procedures for novel food and food additives simpler and more transparent, to harmonise safety tests and to lay down more comprehensive labelling provisions. In the “Bill for the enforcement of the regulations of the European Community in the field of genetic engineering and to amend the Novel Food and Food Additives Regulation“, German responsibilities are being reassigned and sanctions laid down in the case of violations of the provisions in the EU regulation.

The extended provisions concerning the labelling of food are likely to be of special interest to consumers. A new element is the labelling obligation for genetically modified feed. Food produced from animals not reared on genetically modified feed is exempt from the labelling obligation.

Is consumer safety guaranteed?

As in the past, authorisation is only granted for genetically modified food and feed if it has no detrimental effects on human and animal health or on the environment and does not mislead the consumer or user. The new products may not differ from comparable products they are to replace to such an extent that normal consumption of them could lead to nutritional deficiencies in humans or animals. Feed may not impair the specific characteristics of animal products in such a way that it damages or misleads the consumer.

The safety assessment of food and feed on the national level is the responsibility of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). This is where the genetically modified product is compared with the conventional starting product on the basis of the documents submitted by the manufacturer and its nutritional-physiological characteristics as well as any possible toxic or allergenic ingredients are examined. If differences to conventional foods are observed, a decision will be taken depending on type and scale about which more extensive studies are necessary in order to prove the health safety of the product. Authorisation can only be granted once any health concerns have been overcome.

Which products mut be labelled and how can this be monitored?

The rules for the labelling of food and food additives containing genetically modified ingredients have been tightened even further by the uniform Europe-wide legislation. The new laws stipulate that all genetically modified foods must be labelled irrespective of whether the "use of genetic engineering" can be proven or not. Furthermore, feed must now also be labelled if it was produced from genetically modified organisms. Only products with technically unavoidable traces of genetically modified organisms, which reached the product during cultivation, transport or processing, are exempt from the labelling obligation.

Any provision is only ever as good as monitoring of compliance. That's why methods are needed to reliably prove genetic modifications. In the past BfR has already taken the lead in developing methods of this kind in Germany and also in Europe and made them available as official methods. It will continue this work. Consumers can rest assured that the food control authorities in Germany now have suitable control procedures for monitoring the labelling of genetically modified food and feeds.

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